ABC News Headed to Trial With Billions of Dollars on the Line

A South Dakota judge decides that a meat producer could show reckless disregard for the truth in a report about "pink slime."
Courtesy of ABC
Diane Sawyer

Disney's ABC News unit is facing the possibility of a hugely consequential jury trial in South Dakota after a judge there moved along a lawsuit alleging that the network defamed Beef Products Inc. in its coverage of a meat product called lean, finely textured beef, which critics have dubbed "pink slime."

BPI claims $1.9 billion in damage with the possibility the amount could be tripled if the plaintiff can prove ABC News knowingly lied about the safety of a food product. The plaintiff has previously scored wins in keeping the case in a state court and then prevailing against First Amendment arguments on a motion to dismiss.

Now, according to The Wall Street Journal, BPI has moved even closer to trial upon Judge Cheryle Gering's conclusion that a jury "could determine that there is clear and convincing evidence that ABC Broadcasting and [reporter Jim] Avila were reckless," a necessary threshold given the public status of the plaintiff. The judge will allow BPI to try its theory that ABC pursued “a negative spin” before conducting research and purposely avoided the truth.

The judge did allow Diane Sawyer to escape the litigation as a defendant, something that ABC News points out in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter confirming the development.

"We are pleased that the Court dismissed all claims against Diane Sawyer," said ABC. "The Court has not ruled on the merits of the case against the other defendants, and we welcome the opportunity to defend the ABC News reports at trial and are confident that we will ultimately prevail."

After ABC broadcast its pink slime report in 2012, highlighting how much of the ground beef in supermarkets, many restaurants and school lunches included use of fillers and trimmings, plus ammonia to kill bacteria, there was tremendous consumer backlash. The plant said it closed three plants, laid off hundreds and lost some of its customers.

If the case does get to trial — with the network now having to decide whether to risk a billion-dollar verdict regardless of its confidence on the merits — ABC News may defend the substantial truth of its report or attempt to convince jurors that it hadn't published the report with actual malice.